By now, I’m sure a lot of my faithful blog readers (Tyler…and sometimes Chuck. Love you guys.) have been wondering which side of the whole Jay Leno vs. NBC vs. Conan O’Brien controversy I’m on. Well, I’m here to say…It’s just not that black and white. So, in light of the end of a mere seven-month run of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, let’s just take a look at the facts before we decide…
Firstly, The Tonight Show has traditionally been handed down from host-to-host, starting with Steve Allen, then Jack Paar and then onto Johnny Carson, with not much time in between each host. However, in 1992, NBC announced that Jay Leno would be the next successor of The Tonight Show, following Carson’s retirement. Leno, at the time a struggling stand up comedian, worked for NBC as the occasional fill-in host for Carson’s Tonight Show. Despite the natural order of things being that the host of Late Night taking over the Tonight Show, NBC dashed the dreams of young comedian, David Letterman (against the wishes of Johnny Carson as well) by promoting Leno to the host of The Tonight Show. It didn’t take long for Letterman to ditch the network for CBS and form The Late Show with David Letterman.
Secondly, Leno is a great comedian. While he and Letterman both have very distinctly different types of comedy, they both seemed to work almost equally well, just with different audiences. Letterman worked for the edgier, younger crowd for years, and for most of Leno’s run, he was the middle-America and older generation type. But as much crap he gets for ruining late night, or ruining the legendary show that is The Tonight Show, he is simply good at comedy (as objective as that can be). In fact, he was so dedicated to stand up, that even while he was host of The Tonight Show, he would often make guest appearances at comedy clubs all over Los Angeles. So keep his passion and dedication in your mind as we move along…
Thirdly, Conan O’Brien had worked several different comedy writing jobs shortly after he graduated (magna cum laude from Harvard) in 1985. He’d always been known as a nice, soft spoken, witty guy, who never really shined as much on the stage as behind it, but while writing for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, he was handpicked by Lorne Michaels to follow up Letterman as the next host of Late Night in 1993. During his Late Night tenure, ratings soared as he soon became known for much more slap-stick, low-brow type comedy, compared to that of Leno and Letterman. Through his unique comedy however, O’Brien had always retained a solid repertoire with the younger audience, despite (or possibly because of) consistent self-deprecating jokes, down to earth comments, and often even openly making fun of his own looks, hair, and humor.
Next, we reach 2004. In September of 2004 (Do you remember where you were? I do…), Jay Leno told the world he would hand over the keys to The Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien five years down the line, in 2009 (if you don’t click on any other link, please watch this one). Once 2009 hit, the change was made. Conan O’Brien moved from Late Night to Tonight, and NBC decided to create an entirely new show for Leno and bump it up an hour before The Tonight Show, in hopes of gaining viewers in both hours of late night.
Finally, NBC’s ratings were decidedly lackluster throughout the last half of 2009, in just about every hour of the day, and so president and CEO of NBC Universal Jeff Zucker decided his late night lineup needed a change. In hopes (I assume) of simply gaining ratings on the competition of other networks, Zucker (along with many other executives) proposed to Conan O’Brien that they move The Tonight Show back a half hour (from 11:35pm to 12:05am the next day). In a quite well written statement to both NBC and the public, O’Brien loudly proclaimed that he would not move The Tonight Show back a half hour, citing the fact that it was not only disrespectful to the franchise as a whole, but also to the shows (and his friends) who followed, both Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Last Call with Carson Daly. Within a few days, it was becoming clear (mostly through Jay and Conan’s monologues–along with every other comedian and late night host’s monologues) that NBC was trying to oust O’Brien and re-insert Leno back into The Tonight Show.
It wasn’t long until the public jumped in the corner behind Conan, and Leno was quickly seen as reneging on a promise he had made oh-so publicly to O’Brien years before. However it may have looked (and still looks), Leno most likely did not have as much control as people give him credit/blame for. [Jeff Zucker, however, sits in the captain’s chair on top of the NBC empire (see: Jack Donaghy) and can be blamed for just about everything as far as I’m concerned.]
In the very last Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien (January 22, 2010), Conan’s ending remarks were surprisingly kind and amiable towards NBC executives, a group he had blasted throughout his career satirically, but almost bitterly the last two weeks of his Tonight Show reign. [“And what I want to say is this, between my time at ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘The Late Night Show’ and my brief run here at ‘The Tonight Show,’ I have worked at NBC over 20 years. Yes, we have our differences right now. Yes, we’re going our separate ways. But this company has been my home for most of my adult life, and I am enormously proud of the work we’ve done together. And I want to thank NBC for making it all possible — I really do.”]
It was a breath of fresh air to see his positive attitude in the face of such conflict, especially when he had an army of youthful people willing to fight, vote and do well…do just about anything to keep him in the hosting chair. And through choked tears, he ended his speech with, “All I ask of you, especially young people…is one thing. Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.” And with that he stood up, grabbed his guitar and played alongside Will Ferrell, Beck, Billy Gibbons, and Ben Harper, Max Weinberg and the Tonight Show Band as they all played “Free Bird” (not a permanent link) as Conan O’Brien’s career with NBC came to an untimely end.
From June 2009 to January 2010 The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien ruled the airwaves and the internet, helping establish sites like Hulu and CastTV as viable online syndication options. His reign on The Tonight Show was short, but for me, it is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen–a large part of that simply being that it was very much a continuation of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. It was late night and thus quickly written, haphazardly put together, and maybe because of those reasons, it seemed more pure and naturally hilarious compared to situational comedies or even prearranged and well-prepared sketch comedies such as SNL and MadTV. For what it’s worth, I love the comedy team that Conan has put together over the years and in seven months (the allotted time in their legal agreement that O’Brien is not allowed to host another late night television show), whether it be Fox, ABC, BET, Animal Planet, or a 7/11 parking lot, I know I’ll be TiVo-ing, Hulu-ing or doing whatever I can to watch Conando, CoCo, Conaco, or Mr. Obrien wherever he might be.
In the words of the great, roosterly comedian, “Bye, everybody, Bye!”